As the regular reader of this blog (yes, there really is one) will know, I rarely get irritated about anything. OK, I'm lying - I'm always getting irritated. And last night I got irritated all over again.
My friend Rachael posted a link to this Christian Science Monitor article on museums and community engagement. This is an important challenge for museums today and the CSM article is a good one. Having just spent a couple of months writing a grant that is aimed at improving the quality of public access to collections and building "virtual" communities around collections there was a lot in this piece to applaud.
However, as is often the case when we talk about hight-flown principles like public engagement, a person with a pointy head was wheeled out to give a "provocative" soundbite. There are a lot of people like this floating around the margins of the museum world - most of them have never actually worked in a museum, but they come heavily equipped with backgrounds in marketing and communication and look very impressive when your average museum colleague still has egg on his tie from breakfast two days ago.
Anyway, the provocateur in this case was James Chung, who works for Reach Advisors. What do Reach Advisors do? Well, according to their website' they focus on "emerging shifts in how people live, play and buy" and deliver "data-driven strategies that allow clients to put insight into action." In other words, they're market researchers. But doesn't it sound so much more exciting the way Reach Associates describes it? I'm totally hiring these guys to write our next grant.
Anyway, James has a message for us museum people, and that message is "It's not about the collections anymore. It's about community." Pow! Each of those sentences probably cost $10,000 and they were worth every cent. Previously, I had been worried by reports like the recent one from Mike Mares (see this earlier post) that suggested that our national heritage was at risk because we weren't investing in caring for it. Now I can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that our institution's excellent roster of community-based programming (and it is truly excellent - this is the one part of this post where I'm not being sarcastic) absolves me of any responsibility to actually do my job.
To be fair to James Chung, he gets paid large amounts of money to say things like that. That's why you hire consultants - to tell you things that you might not otherwise have thought of. You may not agree, but by putting the option on the table you open up new avenues of discussion. No, what irritated me was the comments that it elicited from some of Rachael's Facebook friends.
Now, I'm not going to name names because that wouldn't be fair: what you say on Facebook ought to stay on Facebook. Neither do I know these people, but I know Rachael very well as a friend and colleague for many years and I'm going to hazard a guess that her friends will be the sort of smart, well-educated people that are intrinsically sympathetic to museums and their mission. Some of them even work in or for museums. So I was a little surprised that they accepted the argument for the massive expansion of museums' activities into the community so enthusiastically and uncritically. I was particularly struck by one comment, which I will reproduce (anonymously) in its entirity:
"I hope he is right and we are moving from an object centered museum towards a community centered museum... it's the right direction to be going in. I have my doubts however as too many people still have the "addiction" to stuff (Both museum workers and visitors).
Huh? We're supposed to try and cure people of an interest in our collections? The collections that we have spent the last 200+ years curating, supposedly on their behalf? The stuff we spend tens of millions of their taxpayer dollars on, either directly or indirectly? It's a bad thing that when they come to a museum, that's what they want to see?
I'm all in favor of community engagement. I love that our museum hosts festivals of music and dance, or poetry slams, that pull people in through the doors who might otherwise never come to a museum. But the purpose for getting people into the museum is to help them begin to engage with our collections. We have an excellent afterschool program that allows local high school students to work directly with our collections and exhibits. We don't do it just to "keep them off the streets." We do it because we believe that both sides benefit through having hands-on contact with the amazing resources that we hold in trust for them.
We'll never abandon programs like this, because we have a responsibility to maintain and improve access to our collections. We also have a responsibility to care for those collections, so that future generations can access them. At the same time, because we are a museum, our activities, public or otherwise, are collection-centered. Museums are all about objects and collections. If not, we wouldn't be museums. We'd be galleries, or science centers entertainment venues or research institutes; schools or retail outlets.
Modern museums suffer from profound cases of insititutional schizophrenia. They have broad-based mission statements, which they try and implement as broadly as possible. All of the roles that I've listed above can be part of a museum, but this will only be successful if the museum's mission remains collection-centered. Each of these diverse functions requires resources that might otherwise be used to support the collections - the trick is to get the balance right. All too frequently, we don't. That's why our collections are in the mess they are in today.
So yes, museums have a responsibility to connect with their communities. But we need to connect through the thing that makes us unique - our collections. That "addicition to stuff" is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal and we would be idiots if we threw it away.